Sony's MP3 stock has shot up mercurially since introducing native MP3 playback to its Network Walkman franchise. Its latest hard drive-based player, the supercompact Network Walkman NW-HD5, has 'winner' written all over it. Although the 20GB player lacks extra features that make the iRiver H320s and the Cowon iAudio X5s of the world so popular, the HD5 delivers, with a wonderfully simple interface, a tiny form factor, sharp sound quality and prodigious battery life. Available in silver, black or red, the HD5 has a list price of £200.
Measuring a scant 89 by 56 by 15mm and weighing only 136g, the Sony Network Walkman NW-HD5 is much smaller than the 20GB iPod. In fact, the silky-smooth metallic device feels more like a Microdrive-based player -- and it's not easy to scratch the brushed-metal surface. Coupled with a revamped interface, which includes nine smooth, tactile buttons underneath the spacious, square 38mm (1.5-inch) monochrome LCD, the HD5 will certainly sway those looking for a high-capacity player that is truly pocketable and undeniably stylish.
The plastic and bubbly controller buttons are tactile and are placed intelligently enough that first-time users will have no problems navigating the device's simple menu system. To the left of the primary five-way controller with a nested play/pause/select button are the dedicated volume buttons. On the right, you'll find the search/menu and stop/power-off buttons. A few users have opined that the buttons give the HD5 a cheap look, but we disagree. The interface's effectiveness is actually a refreshing alternative to the iPod's Click Wheel.
The top of the device features a lightweight and attached plastic cover (which does look cheap) that houses a standard USB 2.0 port and power input. There is also a hold switch and a smart headphone/line-out jack (the HD5 ships with standard earbuds). You'll find a hand-strap loop on the top-right spine and a curious battery slot on the lower-left spine. The battery cover slides open after you stick a sharp point into a hole on the cover. You'll be amazed at the small size of the battery -- more so because it's rated to last 40 hours per charge. No iPod can last that long, nor do any possess the coveted swappable battery.
Sony has always done things a tad differently, and it shows in the main menu system, which includes Find, Options, Edit Bookmark and Playback Screen. Pressing Find takes you to the music library, which is broken down by artist, album, track, genre, new tracks, Initials Search and playlist. We do love the playback screen with its listing of track, album, artist, genre, format, bit rate, time elapsed, track number, battery life and other digital tidbits. However, we do wish the menu would automatically return to Playback Screen after a few seconds. The way it stands, you'll remain on a static menu screen until you select Playback Screen. It's also an extremely legible screen (even outdoors in sunlight) that can be inverted to make the background white instead of black. And the backlight doesn't have to be on in order to view the screen.
The Sony Network Walkman NW-HD5 ships with a standard USB cable, basic earbuds that get the job done (though you'll want to splash out on nicer headphones), an AC adaptor, a soft carrying pouch, and a software disc. Given the HD5's luxury feel, you'd think a protective carrying case would have been included. Also, unlike the iPod and other high-end MP3 players, the HD5 has no docking cradle option, but at least you get the standard mini-USB jack rather than a proprietary one.
Sony's Network Walkman NW-HD5 lacks many of its competitors' features. Like the iPod, it doesn't have an FM tuner, voice recording or line-in recording. Unlike the iPod and most other flagship players these days, the HD5 doesn't have a photo- and album-art-friendly colour screen. It doesn't play Audible files, nor does it come anywhere close to being video capable (even the second-gen iPod can be hacked to play black-and-white video).
But the HD5 does do one thing well: it plays back compressed digital-audio files. The HD5 natively plays back MP3, ATRAC3 and ATRAC3plus files, including those purchased from Sony's Connect music store. Sound quality is top-notch, and menu navigation is intuitive, thanks in part to the aforementioned lack of features. You also get the standard repeat and shuffle playback options, including the ability to shuffle albums, and songs will resume right where you last left them after you repower the unit.
Thanks to ID3 tag filtering and the Initials Search, wherein every track beginning with a selected letter pops up instantaneously, it's easy to find tracks, though you can't play all albums or all artists. The HD5 has a bookmarking feature that doesn't actually bookmark specific points in a track as you would do for an audiobook. Instead, a bookmark is actually an on-the-go playlist -- you can create up to five on-the-go playlists with 100 tracks each. This is a nice extra, but you can add tracks only while they're being played back (hold the up button) and not from within the music library. And unfortunately, you can't transfer those bookmark playlists back to SonicStage on your PC as you can with iPod/iTunes. However, you can edit your bookmarks -- that is, delete or move tracks and even assign one of dozens of basic icons to a bookmark -- within the player interface.
While the HD5's simplicity gives it a throwback aura, the device's inner workings are anything but old-fashioned. The USB 2.0/Universal Mass Storage device also features velocity-sensitive G-Sensor shock protection, which means the hard drive will automatically disengage if it is dropped. The same G-Sensor allows the HD5 to automatically orient the screen so that you can use the device in Portrait as well as right- or left-handed Landscape mode, though Landscape mode, reminiscent of the HD1 and HD3, doesn't do much for us. This works only when you power on the device while it's in your preferred orientation, but you can also manually set the orientation.
Most of those who have followed Sony's progress along the MP3 motorway have noticed that the Windows-only SonicStage software has gotten easier to use and is more effective. It's still not our first choice for a jukebox application, but unfortunately, you're committed to using it for all music transfers. This includes MP3s and songs purchased on Sony's Connect. Although the HD5 will mount as a hard drive even on Mac OS, you can store data using only this method of transfer. Though it takes a while, those who have a stable of non-DRM WMA files can convert them in SonicStage into ATRAC3 for use on the HD5. Unfortunately, the device will not play back WAV, AIFF or lossless formats natively.
As digital music stores grow in popularity and usefulness, understand that you're also committed to Sony's ATRAC3-powered Connect in this arena. The site isn't ideal -- the interface isn't well laid out, and the promoted track selection could be deeper -- but it maintains a dark-horse persona, given the popularity of iTunes and WMA-supported sites such as Napster. We're unsure if the Sony Network Walkman NW-HD5 will be able to handle subscription-based downloads if Sony ever introduces a Janus-like system.
The Sony Network Walkman NW-HD5 powers on the instant you press any button. It takes a standard 6 seconds to boot, and you'll start on whichever screen you last viewed. The first time you access the hard drive, you'll get a slightly annoying 'access' message that appears for about 3 seconds; you'll get this message occasionally during use. However, the overall navigation -- from scanning through tracks or adding tracks to a bookmark playlist -- is as smooth as butter.
In informal testing of the better-sounding MP3 players on the market, the HD5 consistently came out on top. It's a great-sounding player with a low hiss factor, a reasonable bass, crystal-clear highs and an overall warm sound. The only downside is that it doesn't get as loud as some other players, such as the iPod. The so-called VPT Acoustical Engine includes Studio, Live, Club and Arena environments, while the six-band equaliser includes presets for Heavy, Pop, Jazz, Unique and two custom settings, as well as two additional digital sound settings. Do note that the first two sound items (VPT and six-band equaliser) will work only with ATRAC3plus files, not MP3s. All in all, the effects and EQ give a measurable presence to the music, and we appreciate the ability to preview each type of sound before you select. There should be a Quick key to toggle thorugh the sound effects and equalisers, though. DJ, producer and audiophile types will no doubt be entertained by applying the DSP effects.
Perhaps the Sony Network Walkman HD5's most intriguing attribute is its amazingly long battery life. While Sony has rated battery life up to 40 hours using 48Kbps ATRAC3plus tracks, we were able to get a consistent 28 hours per charge playing a 128Kbps MP3 -- still an impressive figure that deposes Creative's Zen Touch as the current high-capacity king of juice. What's more impressive is that you can swap out the HD5's battery, so if you're going on a long trip, this Sony player should be the leading candidate on your list of trusty travel companions. The HD5 will charge via USB in 6 hours, while the AC adaptor will charge the battery to 80 per cent in 1.5 hours. Transfer times for MP3s using SonicStage were a blazing 8.6MB per second over USB 2.0.
Edited by Jasmine France
Additional editing by Nick Hide